THE YEAR I FINISHED 9th grade, I threw my books in the trash can behind our two-story frame house. It was a silly and innocent act, it now seems, dumping the lattered orange algebra book, the greasy green Latin book and the mimeographed instructions on "How to make a Sheath," left over from home economics class.
But it was important then, a rite of passage that made me feel grown up. I likened it to tossing out my childhood and moving boldly on to the mysterious world of high school. I had hopes and ambitions that I felt certainly would be fulfilled.
Life is like that at that stage of the game. The same tension between being grown -- or at least thinking you are -- and still being a child was apparent the other day as I talked with a group of boys and girls idling away the afternoon outside Church's Fried Chicken restaurant in Anacostia. The ambition may have only been hidden, but the hope wasn't there. In its place, I found mostly despair about the kind of future they face -- in the city, even in society.
They spoke of unemployment (over 40 percent for black youths in their area), housing discrimination that kept them herded in Anacostia, the pincer-like hold of poverty and the "mean campaign" to heap shame upon them because they were poor. They spoke of the hostility they face, and the social bias. I tried to puncture some of their cynicism, tried to tell them they had reason to hope. We talked until the afternoon sun began to dip, for there was some of me in those kids, and I told them about it.
I grew up in a neighborhood like theirs, as isolated from white, mainstream Louisville as Anacostia is from Georgetown and Connecticut Avenue. It was called "california." We never knew why, just as many kids in Anacostia don't know how it got its name.
Growing up in California meant that my life would be defined from the outset by my neighborhood. If I really planned to get somewhere I would have to shed Handicaps, dream harder and aim higher -- and move beyond California. It was not a bad place, only one of many pockets of black people in Louisville. To those on the outside, it may have seemed unattractive. To those of us who lived there, it had its appeals, it was home.
Life revolved around school and church and family. Each summer we went to "Camp Sky High," a stone's throw away from town, for two weeks, where the big event was a seven-mile hike to the store on the highway where we could buy junk food like sour pickles and pepperming sticks.
We lived on the other side of the tracks -- the wrong side some would say. But the few excursions into the other world, and the excitement of being young and ambitious at a time when old racial barriers were crumbling -- even if ever so slowly -- brought the hope that doors were being opened and we could break out. We didn't live on the wrong side of the tracks in our minds -- I told the Anacostia group -- our minds leapfrogged continents.
But I didn't get that Feeling of hope talking to the kids in Anacostia. Rather than looking to the day when things would change, they seemed resigned that that day would never come. I threw my books out in the spirit of youthful exuberance; I felt if they threw out their books, it would be in despair.